ESSAIS FROM A HISTORIAN AND A PALEOANTHROPOLOGIST ABOUT COVID-19

by Katia Ferrante

MONACO. Perhaps it is the right time to learn something about what the Covid-19 shows in terms of evolution, listening to a historian, philosopher and author like Yuval Noah Harari and to an eminent French author and paleoanthropologist like Pascal Picq. Theirs views and their books could help us in our research. These recommended books are “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, and “Sapiens face Sapiens” by Pascal Picq. (French Edition Sapiens face à Sapiens) that can be found in Monaco bookshops as it has been published by Flammarion in 2019,

“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, ranked by Bill Gates among his ten favorite books, is the best seller translated into 45 languages first published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011 and in English in 2014. The book surveys the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century, focusing on Homo sapiens. Harari’s work situates his account of human history within a framework provided by the natural sciences, particularly evolutionary biology. He sees biology as setting the limits of possibility for human activity and sees culture as shaping what happens within those bounds. Reading this book one learns how international solidarity and the sharing of scientific information could be the best weapons against the Covid-19 outbreak. In his book, Harari divides the history of Sapiens into four major parts: The Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE, when Sapiens evolved imagination). The Agricultural Revolution (c. 10,000 BCE, the development of agriculture). The Unification of Humankind (the gradual consolidation of human political organisations towards one global empire). The Scientific Revolution (c. 1500 CE, the emergence of objective science). Harari’s main argument is that Sapiens came to dominate the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Harari claims that all large-scale human cooperation systems – including religions, political structures, trade networks, and legal institutions – owe their emergence to Sapiens’ distinctive cognitive capacity for fiction. Harari’s key claim regarding the Agricultural Revolution is that while it promoted population growth for Sapiens and co-evolving species like wheat and cows, it made the lives of most individuals (and animals) worse than they had been when Sapiens were mostly hunter-gatherers, since their diet and daily lives became significantly less varied. Humans’ violent treatment of other animals is an other theme that runs throughout the book. In fact, it comes after the coronavirus outbreak was linked to wildlife meat, that Chinese authorities prompted to ban the trade and consumption of wild animals, through a new law that will come into force on 1 May. Thirty million dogs a year are killed across Asia for meat, says Humane Society International (HSI). However, the practice of eating dog meat in China is not that common – the majority of Chinese people have never done so and say they don’t want to. “Dogs and cats as pets have established a much closer relationship with humans than all other animals, and banning the consumption of dogs and cats and other pets is a common practice in developed countries and in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” the Shenzhen city government said, according to a Reuters report. “This ban also responds to the demand and spirit of human civilization.” In discussing the Unification of Humankind, Harari argues that over its history, the trend for Sapiens has increasingly been towards political and economic interdependence. For centuries, the majority of humans have lived in empires, and capitalist globalization is effectively producing one, global empire. Harari argues that money, empires, and universal religions are the principal drivers of this process. Harari sees the Scientific Revolution as founded on innovation in European thought, whereby elites became willing to admit to, and hence to try to remedy, their ignorance. He sees this as one driver of early modern European imperialism and of the current convergence of human cultures. Harari also emphasises the lack of research into the history of happiness, positing that people today are not significantly happier than in past eras. He concludes by considering how modern technology may soon end the species as we know it, as it ushers in genetic engineering, immortality, and non-organic life. Humans have, in Harari’s chosen metaphor, become gods: they can now create species. About Covid-19  the author adds  that the crisis is not inevitable natural disaster but rather human failure. Harari says we have science, wisdom and community in our favour during fight against coronavirus. The coronavirus pandemic poses unprecedented challenges in biometric surveillance, governance and global cooperation. This is a thesis that the French paleoanthropologist Pascal Picq, author of 31 publications and teaching at the prominent Collège de France shares. In his latest essai, “Sapiens face Sapiens” (French Edition “Sapiens face à Sapiens”) that can be found in Monaco bookshops as it has been published by Flammarion in 2019, the paleoanthropologist wondered: “Can our Homo sapiens species adapt to the meteoric consequences of its success for 40,000 years and its unprecedented amplification for half a century? Yes, the more successful a species, the more it must adapt to its consequences. Here we are.» A prophetic questioning to say the least, given the current crisis. Today, Picq further declares that the Covid-19 crisis suddenly reminds us that the human species has never stopped and will never stop co-evolving with other species, starting with viruses and bacteria. A “lesson in Darwinism” which should lead us to rethink our development model and our medicine”…Picq says that thanks to the tremendous and indisputable progress in medicine since Pasteur and Koch and the birth of microbiology in the 19th century, the idea gradually emerged that we were freeing ourselves from the laws of evolution. This current of diffuse thought has found its culmination in transhumanism. However, nothing is more wrong. During the 20th century alone, we experienced three pandemics: the Spanish flu of 1918-1919 (at least 50 million deaths), the Asian flu of 1957-1958 (between 1 and 4 million deaths), and the flu of 1968, also known as “Hong Kong flu” (1 million dead). At the start of the 21st century, alerts have multiplied even more. The latest was the Ebola outbreak, from 2013 to 2016, but it was in West Africa, so far from the heart of the global economy. It was therefore not heard. No more than the one that preceded it. Picq says that the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic that occurred in 2009 was, unconsciously, the best ally of Covid-19 as it paved the way for it. Some of these diseases – this was the case with Ebola yesterday, and Covid-19 today – come from nature, from the world of wild animals: these epidemics are wreaking havoc, because they correspond to the outbreak brutal, in human societies, of pathogenic agents which hitherto lived outside our sphere, and with which we therefore could not coevolve. But these emerging illnesses are coupled with others – the flu and a number of childhood illnesses – which, on the contrary, come from our cohabitation with domestic animals. For 7,000 or 8,000 years since this domestication, and therefore that these diseases exist, we have not ceased to coevolve with them. The human species is, whether it likes it or not, engaged, like all other living species, in a “permanent stationary race” with the species which coevolve with it, starting with its parasites of all kinds (viruses, bacteria, etc.). The fact is that never have we been so mobile on the surface of the globe. Think of air transport, mass tourism. There are still islets of survival of traditional lifestyles – and the poor Chinese peasant who has recklessly killed a pangolin infected with a bat is an example – but these islets being surrounded by sprawling megacities and interconnected with them, they are caught in the trap of globalization. This offers viruses and other pathogens the possibility of leaving their natural ecosystems. There is a great principle of evolution, which is that the more success a species has on the evolutionary level, the more it must adapt to the consequences of this success, especially on the environment. After the WWII, the world’s population has more than tripled, life expectancy has increased. But, as a corollary of this evolutionary success, the environment has profoundly changed: massive urbanization, air pollution, etc. The pandemic Covid-19 should teach us that we can’t go on like this! It is time to reflect on our actions in ecosystem terms That each region of the world thinks in terms of ecosystem, this means, for example, for Europe, to no longer depend on China for its supply of reagents, artificial respirators or surgical masks … As for large companies , they must understand that their social responsibility is a three-stage rocket: first, limit their negative externalities as much as possible; second, to compensate for these same externalities, for example through philanthropy; thirdly, make all of their stakeholders adhere to a shared value system. This consciousness is emerging. After the time of reconstruction and development that followed World War II, then the coup of the Chicago School in the 1980s (around thinkers like Milton Friedman saying that companies, owned by their shareholders, were only to maximize their profits and their dividends), we are entering a third period: that of ecosystem thinking, corporate social responsibility and the rise of bio-inspired technologies (including artificial intelligence as an excellent example today). Hopefully the current crisis will speed up this process. Also the global health care system has to learn a lot from this new pandemic. The first lesson is that socio-economic inequalities constitute an extremely favorable breeding ground for the spread of viruses and other pathogens. The case of the United States is exemplary in this regard. The 30 million people who, out of the 330 million inhabitants of this country, do not have the means to treat themselves properly and are kept on the fringes of the medical system represent a veritable time bomb: more than 200,000 people have already infected, making it, right now and by far the country in the world with the most officially registered cases, and it is unfortunately not over. So much the better if Donald Trump suddenly realizes that he needs researchers and doctors. The second lesson is that it is time to convert to “evolutionary medicine”: it is to evolutionists to teach doctors how humanity has constantly co-evolved with pathogens, and how its evolutionary success is itself the source of new diseases, new health problems. The third lesson is that we must take the “One Health” concept very seriously. In fact, to guarantee good health to humans, it is also necessary to guarantee good health to animals, as well as to natural environments. Swine fever, bird flu, etc. are not just about pigs or poultry, it’s also ours! These two concepts, evolutionary medicine and One Health, are closely linked. In the eyes of many researchers, this crisis has at least had the merit of bringing scientific speech to the fore in the scientific debate.

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